Today the blog continues its examination of St. Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. Previous material on this topic and on Genesis and Mark, can be accessed from my archive. Biblical references can be placed after emmock.com as can particular topics eg. emmock.com John 3:16; or emmock.com obedience. The daily headlines are reminders of the world we live in.
Paul’s First Letter to the Church in Corinth Chapter 13 (My translation)
If I speak in all human and angelic languages, but have no love,
I am merely a sounding gong or an echoing cymbal.
And if I hold prophetic rank and see into every hidden truth and science;
And if I have the complete faith that moves mountains, but have no love,
I am nothing.
And if I parcel out my wealth to feed the poor
And accept being branded as a slave,
But have no love, it brings me no benefit.
Love waits patiently and acts kindly;
It does not envy, brag or puff itself up;
It causes no offence, seeks no selfish advantage,
Is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs,
Finds no joy in injustice, but delights in the truth;
It bears, trusts, hopes and endures in all conditions:
Love never fails.
But if there are prophecies, they shall fail;
If there are ecstatic speakers, they shall be silenced;
If there is knowledge, it shall be destroyed.
For we know and prophesy in a limited way
But when perfection comes, the limits disappear.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I reasoned as a child; when I became a man, I abandoned childish ways.
Now we see ambiguous images in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face;
Now I know in a limited way; then I shall know as perfectly as God knows me.
Now faith and hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of them is love.
How could a busy man, in the middle of a restrictive detention by the Roman administration, suddenly rise from the practical concerns of pastoral oversight to this supremely eloquent and profound utterance? The only possible answer is that the truth expressed in this passage undergirds the whole of the author’s living and thinking. This is not a sudden inspiration but the fruit of years of experience in the giving and receiving of love.
Paul uses the Greek word “agapy” which unlike other Greek words for love, does not describe a specific sort of love ( like “eros”, sexual love, or philia,family love) but had a more general application. He can use it for the love God has for human beings or the love human beings have for God, or their neighbour. In effect Paul defines the word in this passage by what it does and what it refuses to do. These are not surprising definitions, the reader accepts them as correct, but they are not banal either. It’s very typical of a man who can be tetchy, that patience is his first definition and kindness his second. This gets rid of any notion that love might be a vague goodwill.To make sure this is understood he follows immediately with a set of negative definitions: love is not envious,boastful, arrogant,offensive, self-seeking, angry, grudge-holding or judgemental. Given that almost all his readers in any time will know these negative behaviours in themselves, they will also know how much they have still to grow. We can’t say, “I’m a loving person but I can’t forgive her,”; our refusal to forgive is lack of love.
Then he returns to positive definitions: love is truth -cherishing, burden-carrying, trustful, hopeful, and tough. Even good things may cease but “love falls never away” in William Tyndale’s marvellous translation. Each one of Paul’s defining terms deserves consideration.For example, when Paul says that love “delights in the truth”, he is not meaning some kind of mystical enlightenment but simply a joyful acceptance of the facts, even if they are uncomfortable.(The Greek word means un-concealment) Climate change deniers lack love, in Paul’s view. The facts are friendly; God is in the facts. Yet loving people are not suspicious of others; they are trusting because they know that trust builds people up. Paul’s list of defining behaviours is indicative rather than exhaustive, but full enough for the reader to use as a check-list. The last time I did this, the results were a little dismaying- more than fifty years of conscious discipleship and still so far to go!
Once the reader has understood Paul’s definition of love, she can also understand why Paul rates it above eloquence, prophecy, knowledge, faith – and even self-sacrifice. (Paul will not celebrate a suicide bomber.) Both religious and secular virtues are empty of value without love. From the start Paul has in mind the problems caused by clever and eloquent people in the Corinthian assembly, and he returns even more explicitly to the qualities they admire in his peroration: love never fails but one day prophetic eloquence, ecstatic speaking and knowledge will vanish, because faced with the full revelation of God’s love, all of these will seem like childish babbling; they are of limited value but God’s love is beyond all limit. Even trust and hope which are needed now,will one day be unnecessary, and only love will remain.
Here however Paul comes back to knowledge: “then I shall know as perfectly as God knows me.” Paul’s Pharisaic study would have taught him that the verb to know is used in the Hebrew bible of the sexual act; and that it retains something of this personal intimacy when used of God’s knowledge of human beings. In this way Paul re-unites what the Corinthians have separated: knowledge and love. The passage is at once a profound truth for all times and places while also being a pertinent message for the cliques in Corinth.
This passage is an instance of what D.H Lawrence called, “Man in his wholeness, wholly attending.” It is infinitely precious both for itself and for its place in the rough and tumble of Paul’s correspondence with the assembly at Corinth.
The love of which he spoke was demonstrated yesterday by the families of the murdered church members in Charleston USA, who stated their forgiveness of the killer. Their nobility shames all hatred, including religious hatred, everywhere.